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SOS from the wilderness: Save our Save
Thursday, 28 February 2013 12:20
AS the ownership wrangle engulfing the Save Valley Conservancy continues
with no clear solution in sight, the wildlife paradise is being ravaged by
poachers and unplanned development. The privately-owned wilderness now risks
being completely rundown, reports Nelson Chenga.
ALONG Zimbabwe’s Masvingo-Birchenough Bridge highway in the south eastern
Lowveld is a little known place called paGedhe. Literally, it means “at the
gate,” although there is no gate in sight.
The place, which has about a dozen or so tiny shops, was named after the
main gate leading into what was once arguably the country’s largest cattle
ranch of Devuli that covered 7 500 square kilometres when it was created in
The ranch has, however, shrunk in size. What used to be the main gate is now
located some 40km away from its original site after President Robert Mugabe’s
controversial land reforms sliced by half the ranch’s former size to the
current 3 400 square kilometres.
Despite having already lost half of its land, the fate of Devuli appears yet
to be sealed, as further land reforms eat into the remaining property by
releasing thousands of villagers into the ranch.
Devuli was transformed into the country’s biggest privately-owned game park,
now called Save Valley Conservancy, in mid 1990s.
The conservancy is in the country’s predominantly Natural Region 5, an area
with a highly erratic annual rainfall of less 650 millimeters, making cattle
and crop production or any other form of agricultural activity an extremely
The creation of the Save Valley Conservancy was so well supported that the
government signed international Bilateral Investment Promotion and
Protection Agreements (BIPPAs) with more than half a dozen governments that
then invested heavily into the park by helping erect a 350km perimeter game
fence, purchasing animals and sinking boreholes, among other things.
A memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the conservancy, which has about
25 former white commercial cattle ranchers, and the five rural districts of
Bikita, Chiredzi, Zaka, Buhera and Chipinge was also signed in 2000 to
soften the hard edge created by the physical fence barrier.
The MOU gave birth to social and economic partnerships that benefitted the
conservancy and its neighbours.
However, more than two decades down the line the dream of creating an animal
paradise that would be part of one of the world’s biggest game reserves, the
Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, is turning into a nightmare as the project
fast falls apart.
Half of the 350km game fence has been ripped off and used to snare the park’s
wild animals that include more than half of some of Zimbabwe’s greatest
treasures, the rhino, the lion, the leopard, the buffalo and the elephant,
commonly referred to as the Big Five.
Four of Africa’s celebrated Big Five are all on the International Union for
the Conservation of Nature’s Redlist of Threatened
Species, a list of flora and fauna in danger of extinction.
Organised criminals using high-powered guns have also come to the party
specifically to target the Big Five.
Considering that a licenced hunter is willing to pay US$20 000 to shoot a
lion and US$12 000 for a bull elephant over and above the US$2 500 they pay
per day to secure a hunting permit, one can easily figure out that the
country is being prejudiced of millions of dollars by poachers ravaging Save
Venison and fresh game meat is now a common daily diet for communities
around the park because of rampant poaching activities .
With the fence damaged, the wild animals, especially lions, now also roam
freely into the communal areas attacking livestock, creating an ugly state
The situation looks even more untidy as about 2 000 people, with more still
coming in, are busy clearing huge tracts of the conservancy, including areas
covered under BIPPAs, to plant crops such as sorghum and millet.
Juxtapose this perplexing scenario with a spirited campaign by a horde of
influential politicians and businesspeople seeking a stake in the
conservancy without them contributing a single cent, the future for Save
Valley becomes too ghastly to contemplate.
The situation on the ground is moving from bad to worse as the conservancy
members refuse to pay unit taxes, maintain the conservancy, chiefly the
boundary fence, or take responsibility for whatever happens in the game park
arguing that it is no longer clear who owns the property, a state of affairs
that is promoting a free for all situation.
Save Valley Conservancy Trust chairperson, Basil Nyabadza, in an interview
with The Financial Gazette In-Depth, said a conservancy was not very
different from a nursery; a special designated asset that must be jealously
“However, in the past five years we have seen unprecedented levels of
poaching taking place . . . It’s organised poaching. It’s not being done by
amateurs. It’s well-organised and sadly possibly aided by local people out
of greed. Poaching is now getting out of control in the conservancy,” said
Nyabadza, who has courted the ire of some of the politicians and
businesspeople seeking a stake in Save because of his strong views against
unplanned resettlements and poorly structured empowerment programmes,
highlighted that some of the poachers now have the temerity of using
automatic weapons, a situation which he described as worrying.
Nyabadza, whose Agricultural and Rural Development Authority has a stake in
Save, said very little safari hunting could take place in the conservancy
this year since the game park’s future continues to hang in the balance due
to the ownership wrangle.
“Sadly there have been cancellations of hunting from foreign clients because
they are aware there is a dispute in progress and last year’s trophies have
not been exported because the ministry has withheld some of the permits. So
these are some of the immediate problems that have taken root. Someone comes
here, pays full fees, hunts and we then deny them the permit to
export. Immediately they ask: ‘What’s happening?’ We have lost badly this
season as a nation. We have lost badly because the trust and expectations of
the hunting community (have not been met). It doesn’t look good and it means
serious cash flow constraints,” said Nyabadza, adding that the scenario may
affect the successful hosting of the United Nations World Tourism
Organisation (UNWTO) General Assembly to be held in August this year.
“There is a programme coming up this August, the UNWTO, so we must be at our
best behaviour. We don’t need to be in conflict, shouting at each other and
undermining the very constituency who are going to be hosted by us. Now we
have some of those with whom we have signed bilateral agreements agitated
that their assets are under siege. This is causing problems in our
The Lowveld Rhino Trust director, Raoul du Toit, who was part of the
conservancy since inception, said the major donors behind rhino conservation
were concerned that the economic viability of Save Valley was being
undermined by political disputes that have disrupted safari hunting
Said du Toit: “Because ecotourism is presently limited in Zimbabwe owing to
negative international perceptions, the conservancy relies heavily upon
safari hunting . . . Major recurrent costs arise in anti-poaching, water
pumping, fence maintenance, restocking, maintenance of infrastructure,
skilled staff, marketing and other aspects of the wildlife business.
“Once safari hunting is disrupted, the conservancy members have no income to
maintain their ranch operations, which include anti-poaching activities. In
the past, the members were able to look after rhinos very effectively on
behalf of the nation…”
Du Toit suggested that for Zimbabwe to wean itself from donor assistance
such as that currently being given by the International Rhino Foundation and
SAVE Foundation, there was need for community partnerships to help reduce
the costs involved in protecting wildlife resources. Incentives for local
communities to sustain wildlife resources can also help reduce local
poaching, fence destruction and other problems, he said.
The five rural district councils that signed the MOU with the Save Valley
Conservancy Trust in 2000 are also losing thousands of dollars in unpaid
unit tax because of the dispute.
“You cannot approach any of the farmers because they are saying they are not
the owners,” said Bikita Rural District Council (RDC) chief executive
officer, Johnson Mpamhadzi.
Bikita RDC failed to collect US$152 747 in unit taxes last year, an amount
which represents 7,6 percent of the council’s budget.
Nonetheless, with the Save Valley Conservancy dispute having been referred
to Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara, one just hopes that a solution
would be found soon before it is too late.